Learning to Live Reverently

By Gerald M. Fagin, SJ
From Putting on the Heart of Christ: How the Spiritual Exercises Invite Us to a Virtuous Life

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Reverence is a virtue to be cultivated and practiced. It is a disposition of heart that leads us to the good in all things and draws us closer to God. Reverence brings us closer to other people and to the world around us. The reverent person notices and responds to the mystery of life and the sacredness of all things. Reverence is an attitude of dependence and humility, an appreciation of the splendor and beauty of all reality, and a longing for something greater. Reverence is a self-effacing virtue, but it implies as well a reverence for oneself as a person created and loved and chosen by God. Reverence gives voice to our desire for God, our desire to find fulfillment beyond ourselves in the mystery that embraces us.

Some will argue that contemporary life and culture have lost a sense of reverence. In an individualized and person-centered world, it is easy to domesticate God, trivialize relationships, and flee from the sacred. Reverence is not a virtue to be found only in traditional settings, formal titles, formal rituals, and attitudes. Each culture must discover its own way to foster reverence. Each of us must find reverence in the world in which we live.

In the end, we must tap into our own experience of reverence by reflecting on contemplative moments of awe. Descriptions of reverence are only helpful if they are measured against one’s own recalled experience of transcending oneself and opening oneself to something greater. For example, I remember standing on the top of a mesa ten thousand feet high overlooking what seemed to be hundreds of miles of fertile land. I had an experience of amazement, of silence, of vastness, of expansiveness, of gift. I felt a sense of wonder that God had almost done too much and thus created out of the sheer joy of creating and sharing goodness.

We feel such things often—in the countless number of stars on a clear night, before a work of art, at the birth of a child, at the moment of dying of a loved one. These contemplative experiences draw us closer to God even as we feel small and unworthy. They are sacred moments that expand the landscapes of our hearts. Ignatius knew reverence when he prayed at night under the stars, but he knew it as well in the busyness of each day. He hoped to elicit that experience throughout the Exercises.

Ignatius believed that anyone who prayerfully considers the basic truth that we are created out of love by a transcendent God of holiness will grow in a sense of reverence. We will have a deepened sense of the sacredness of all things if we think of everything as continually being called and sustained in being by God. We will stand in awe not just before sunsets and mountains, flowers and trees, but also, and especially, before every person we meet. Reverence is a disposition of a heart that allows us to live before the beauty and goodness of every creature and the God who made them. In Ignatian terminology, reverence will enable us to find God in all things.

This first exercise of the Spiritual Exercises begins to transform us into a particular kind of person. Already there is an answer emerging to the questions asked by virtue ethics: Who am I? Who ought I to become? How am I to get there? Reverence is a foundational virtue for putting on the heart of Christ.

Reflecting on the Virtue of Reverence

  • Recall and reflect on an experience of reverence and awe in your life.
  • Where and how do I experience God being present in my life?
  • How can I grow in reverence for God, others, self, and life?
  • How can I foster a contemplative heart?

Scripture Readings on Reverence
Psalm 104 God the Creator and Provider
Luke 8:22-25 Jesus Calms a Storm
Luke 9:28-36 The Transfiguration

Excerpt from Putting on the Heart of Christ: How the Spiritual Exercises Invite Us to a Virtuous Life by Gerald M. Fagin, SJ.

Related Links
Ignatian Contemplation (blog post)
Mary at Her Annunciation as a Model for Growing in the Virtue of Faith by Gerald M. Fagin, SJ